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Higher line, two No 10s and hunting in packs - what we learnt from Ralf Rangnick's first Man Utd game

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Higher line, two No 10s and hunting in packs - what we learnt from Ralf Rangnick's first Man Utd game - REUTERS
Higher line, two No 10s and hunting in packs - what we learnt from Ralf Rangnick's first Man Utd game - REUTERS

Manchester United overcame a resilient Crystal Palace 1-0 in Ralf Rangnick's first game as interim manager. Telegraph Sport looks at what appears to have changed under the German - and what it could mean for the remainder of his six-month stint.

Pressing in packs

With just one disrupted 45 minute training session that had to be cut short due to the “disgusting” weather in Manchester on Saturday to prepare for Crystal Palace, there was a limit to how much change Ralf Rangnick could drive. 

Manchester United are not going to become masters of his beloved gegenpress overnight and the new interim manager is acutely aware that time on the training field is going to be at a premium over the coming months given the frenetic schedule. 

But it was telling that United won possession in the final third on 12 occasions - more than in any other game this season - as they hunted in packs with cohesion and coordination. Conor Gallagher hacked a pass out after being swamped by Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho in one such instance and Wilfried Zaha was overwhelmed on another occasion by Fred, Scott McTominay and Sancho. 

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United never seemed likely to be able to maintain that tempo and intensity for the whole game and things went flat in the second half before Fred scored. 

But a more directed, aggressive approach in the opening 45 minutes was reflected by United playing more passes into the final third and Palace penalty area, and having more touches in the opposition box than the first half of any other match this term. 

“Everyone knows the manager wants more pressing from us,” Fernandes said. “The first 25 minutes was unbelievable, great tempo.”

Rashford central and 'two No 10s'

The most glaring tactical tweak in Rangnick’s thirst for control was the switch to a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Marcus Rashford moved centrally just behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho given the freedom to cut inside from wide positions as two nominal No 10s. 

“The most challenging, demanding positions in that formation are the two 10s but when Palace was in possession, Bruno and Jadon did well,” Rangnick said. “It's a little bit new but not that new - defensively they both did well.” 

Rashford stretched the Palace defence, allowing United to play the “vertical” passes Rangnick sought and creating space for others to exploit, and looked happier than at any other point this season. Rejuvenating the England forward is just one of the many challenges on Rangnick’s to-do list. 

Cristiano Ronaldo, too often an isolated figure upfront under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, enjoyed the extra support and won special praise from his manager for his diligent work off the ball, a direct counterpoint to those questioning where the five-time World Player of the Year would fit in Rangnick’s system.

Marcus Rashford impressed in a more central role - GETTY IMAGES
Marcus Rashford impressed in a more central role - GETTY IMAGES

Attacking full-backs

With Sancho and Fernandes drifting inside, the width, in the main, was provided by the full-backs, Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles, who were pushed high upfield, pinning down Palace’s own full-backs and revelling in the absence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw. 

When United attacked, it was effectively a 2-2-4-2 set-up. Telles’ dead ball delivery was a threat but Dalot was the most impressive of the pair. 

There may be questions about the Portuguese’s defensive capabilities but he offers so much more going forward than the reticent, technically flawed Wan-Bissaka and probably should have scored on the cusp of half-time when he collected the ball on the right and exchanged slick passes with McTominay before firing narrowly wide. 

He also delivered a couple of menacing crosses and speared a sublime 20-yard forward pass on the half volley into the feet of Ronaldo to kick-start an attack. “They almost played like wing-backs,” Rangnick said. “Alex and Diogo did extremely well offensively and that's why I played 4-2-2-2, I’m a big fan.”

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Focused Fred

The game’s only goal was scored by its best player. Fred has been a scapegoat for many of United’s ills but, against Palace, the Brazilian resembled the midfielder who routinely impresses for his country to cap a successful week after an enterprising showing against Arsenal and his popularity among the group was reflected in the way he was mobbed by team-mates after scoring. 

“He’s the underdog, everybody can criticise him but he keeps his head clean and gives it everything,” Dalot said. His confidence was so high that, by the end, he was doing back heels and pinging around brisk first time passes.

 Both Fred and McTominay were guilty of turning over the ball with careless square passes in the first half, and Rangnick made a point of highlighting his dislike for such risky balls. But, in the main, Fred embodied United’s first half intensity and industry, winning back possession quickly and circulating the ball cleanly and effectively. 

“I had to ask my assistant coach if that was Fred’s right foot - I thought he could only shoot with his left!” Rangnick joked. “I’m happy for him.”

Defensive platform, higher line

This was United’s first clean sheet at Old Trafford in any competition for 235 days, and the first in the league at home since a 1-0 victory over West Ham on March 14. 

Rangnick had made it clear beforehand that he wanted his players to “try and keep away from their own goal” and they achieved that in the main, even if they were fortunate Jordan Ayew missed a golden opportunity two minutes before Fred scored after United’s vulnerability defending set-pieces was again exposed. 

United have played so deep this season that at times it has felt like Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were sat on David De Gea but Rangnick played a higher defensive line and Lindelof, in particular, enjoyed the chance to push into midfield in the first half. 

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